The workhouse system evolved during the 17th century, accommodating people who were unable to support themselves and providing them with employment.
By the early 1740s the parish of Barnes had, through bequest, acquired several cottages which were used under the terms of the 1601 Poor Relief Act to accommodate people in "great want"; in 1758 the Vestry resolved to convert these cottages into a small workhouse. By the mid-1770s it was clear that these premises were too small to accommodate the number of people needing parish support and the Vestry began to look for a new site, providing a "more airy situation" and on a "more extensive plan". The Vestry found this new site on Barnes Common: 23 acres, bounded by Queen's Ride; Upper Richmond Road and Dyers Lane (being the parish boundary with Putney). They petitioned the Lords of the Manor for the use of the land and were granted this use within the month.
The Vestry appointed a local builder, Joseph Yellowby, to erect a workhouse on the north side of Upper Richmond Road in the four-acre triangle formed now by Queens Ride and Gipsy Lane . Sir Richard Hoare, head of the merchant bank and tenant of the manor of Barn Elms, successfully raised the necessary capital through the sale of interest-bearing annuities. Construction went ahead and the new premises opened in December 1778.
It was originally hoped that the workhouse would cover its costs through the sale of goods produced by its inmates. This was not to be. To put the workhouse on a sounder financial footing, Sir Richard and the Vestry arranged in 1785 to extend the site eastwards to the Barnes/Putney boundary by incorporating the 16 additional acres of common land between Queens Ride and Upper Richmond Road.
By renting this land out for market gardening it was expected to raise sufficient income to support the workhouse. This also proved over-optimistic. However, the workhouse continued to operate on its enlarged site for another 50 years (usually with around 30 inmates) until it was rendered redundant by the Poor Law of 1834 which shifted responsibility for the operation of workhouses from the local parish to a specially appointed local authority.
The workhouse building was immediately let as a private residence and renamed the Manor House. During the 1920s it was converted into a hotel of the same (misleading) name. By the late 1950s, the premises had become seriously rundown and were replaced by a new multi-storey apartment block, Roehampton Court, which still stands.
After 1836, the rest of the site continued to be let for market gardening although the central section was soon sold to allow for construction of the Richmond Railway. By the early 1860s , with the railway hampering the operation of the market gardens, the time had come for residential development on both sides of the railway track. The Vestry decided to develop the site for superior housing and set up the "Workhouse Charities", with three trustees, to supervise development. A mortgage of £1,695 was raised to initiate the work. Surveyors were appointed and the entire area on both sides of the railway was divided into sizeable plots each with a substantial private dwelling, many of which stand to this day.
The new properties were leased, producing an income of £1,127 per year. The purpose of this income had not changed: it was to be used for the benefit of the local poor and this purpose was set in stone in 1886, under the new terms of the "Workhouse Charity" scheme, with the charity being run this time by ten Trutees. The scheme provided that the yearly income was to be paid to the "Overseers of the Poor of the Parish for the time being" and from there, the funds were applied in aid of the poor rates of the Parish.
For the next 43 years the trust income was distributed to the local overseers of the poor (usually the church wardens). In 1930 new legislation finally transferred all responsibility for "relief of the poor" to local boroughs and from then the Charity's income was simply transferred to the borough of Barnes and treated in effect as a welcome reduction in the local rates.
However, the Trust was advised that this arrangement was of dubious legality. In January 1970, the present charitable scheme was adopted under the title "Barnes Workhouse Fund", with the specific condition that "the funds or income of the charity shall not be applied in relief of rates, taxes or other public funds".
The Barnes Workhouse Fund is provided with nine Trustees, all required to be Barnes residents. The Fund's objects confirm that the charity should act for the benefit of the poor, aged and needy, who reside in the Ancient Parish of Barnes (broadly the SW13 post code area). In addition the Fund may support recreational or educational activities and may also contribute to capital projects in Barnes.
In 1974, the Board of Trustees spotted an opportunity to extend the Barnes Workhouse Fund's range of support, by building sheltered accommodation for the elderly in Barnes on one half of what was the site of the tennis club in Ferry Road. Walsingham Lodge now provides one and two bedroomed accommodation in the form of bungalows and flats, at a low rent, for retired residents of Barnes.
The other half of that site was first leased by the Barnes Workhouse Fund to Richmond Churches Housing Trust, upon which the Trust built a residential care home for the frail elderly, called Viera Gray House.
The freeholds of most of the houses on the original workhouse land have been sold over the years, with the proceeds invested. These investments produce income for the charity, to be spent for the benefit of Barnes residents in need. The accounts for the year ended December 2012 show that the Fund's total wealth, including Walsingham Lodge was valued at £8,060,898.
It is the Trustees' responsibility to lead the Fund into the future in a way that ensures that it continues to support those residents of Barnes who are less fortunate than others, for a long time to come, in the best way possible. The Fund's purpose is as strong today as was that of the original Barnes workhouse, some two hundred years ago.
From an original report by: John Seekings
With thanks to the Barnes & Mortlake History Society and their publication, "The Barnes Poor House" by Margaret Butler.
Miranda Ibbetson, Former Director (2003 to 2018)